Mother Jones Doesn’t Know Best
In a recent article from Mother Jones about wastewater disposal in Ohio, the writer (Thomas Stackpole) unfortunately focused more on hysteria than the facts. As just one example, the author asserted that Ohio has looser regulations than our neighbors, a statement that is simply is not true. In fact, Ohio has some of the most robust regulations on the books – and they’re actually more stringent than what is required by even the U.S. EPA! In an effort to clear the air, let’s fact check some of the more erroneous claims made in this story to allow people to learn the truth.
Mother Jones: “More than 200 disposal wells dot the state, which has looser regulations than its neighbors.”
- Rules and regulations for Class II injection wells are created and enforced by the U.S. EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. Ohio, like every other state, can not create regulations looser than what the EPA establishes.
- Whenever new rules are placed into effect at the federal level, Ohio must follow them, per Section 1425 of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Section 1425 mandates that states demonstrate that their existing standards are effective in preventing endangerment of drinking water in the United States.
- In 1983, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) received primacy over its Class II well program. In order to gain primacy, ODNR had to demonstrate its rules met or exceeded the federal UIC program.
- Ohio’s regulations are stronger than the regulations set forth by the EPA’s UIC program. Ohio’s rules include unannounced inspections every 11-12 weeks (instead of one inspection per year), continuous mechanical integrity monitoring, and seismic testing and monitoring – just to name a few.
Mother Jones: “But most of the waste—630 billion gallons, each year—goes back into the ground, pumped into disposal wells, which are then capped and sealed. A bunch of it ends up underneath Portage County.”
- Portage County received 75 million gallons of brine last year, as mentioned in the article. If we do the math, it seems as though Portage County represented one hundredth of one percent of the brine disposed of last year. I suppose “a bunch of it” is neither scientific nor objective, and thus is open to interpretation. But I also doubt anyone would consider a fraction of a percent a large amount.
Mother Jones: “Because Ohio regulates its own disposal wells, the waiting period to get approval to drill a new well is about five weeks, compared to upwards of eight months in Pennsylvania, where the feds are in charge. That might explain why Ohio has more than 20 times as many wells as its neighbor.”
- The reason Ohio has 200 Class II wells is because Ohio passed HB 501 in 1985. Since that time Class II injection wells have been the only approved method of brine disposal in Ohio.
- Primacy is not unique to Ohio. In fact, more than 40 states also have primacy over their UIC programs. In order for Ohio to maintain primacy, it must continue to demonstrate an ability to effectively manage and regulate the program to the EPA, while also being audited by that agency on a regular basis.
- Pennsylvania, on the other hand, utilized wastewater treatment plants for years before moving to Class II well injection and recycling, which is why Ohio has so many more Class II wells.
Mother Jones: “The dozen earthquakes that rattled Youngstown at the end of 2011 were thought at the time to have been caused by fracking.”
- The seismic events in Youngstown were not caused by hydraulic fracturing. They were thought to be caused by a disposal well, which was not hydraulically fractured.
- Following some misreporting that linked hydraulic fracturing to earthquakes, the Interior Department’s Deputy Secretary David Hayes weighed in on the claims: “We also find that there is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes.”
Mother Jones: “[T]here is growing evidence that the practice is linked to methane leaking into water supplies.”
- The ‘growing evidence’ to which the author refers is a recent Duke University study. Of course, that study has many flaws of its own.
- For example, the Duke study found methane concentrations in areas without any natural gas wells. The findings show that measurable methane concentrations were almost equally likely to be located outside the proximity of natural gas drilling as they were to be located near it.
- The Duke study suggested the composition of methane (thermogenic) discovered was what linked it to natural gas development. But a report released one week before the Duke study – from the U.S. Geological Survey – found thermogenic methane in baseline water samples in the area. In other words, before any drilling ever occurred in that same part of the state as measured by Duke researchers, thermogenic methane has been found in water.
- The fact that methane can occur in water wells whether there is drilling activity in the area or not has long been known, too. According to a study by the National Groundwater Association, in a location of Pennsylvania where no natural gas development is even occurring, they found that “methane is ubiquitous in groundwater, with higher concentrations observed in valleys vs. upland areas and in association with calcium/sodium/bicarbonate, and sodium chloride-rich waters.”
Mother Jones: “Even perfectly sound wells have leaked after waste was injected at higher pressure than the rock formations holding it could bear. In southern Ohio, waste from one well migrated up through 1,400 feet of rock.”
- Mr. Stackpole is confusing apples for oranges. The example cited refers to a Class I well from the 1980s. Those wells are not regulated by ODNR, and do not reflect Class II wells, which are the ones that actually receive wastewater from oil and gas operations.
- Ohio has injected 202 million barrels of brine into its Class II wells without one case of groundwater contamination. Not one! This number should have been used, but the author selectively ignores this point.
- It should also be noted that with the passage of SB 315 in 2012, Ohio Revised Code 1509.22(D)(2) gives ODNR the power to establish rules governing the testing of reservoirs to determine their suitability for injection, the maximum allowable injection pressure, the total depth allowed, and other issues relating to public health and safety.
Mother Jones: “There have also been recent problems with disposal. In February, Ben Lupo, who owns D&L Energy, an energy production and marketing company based in Youngstown, was indicted on charges of ordering more than 20,000 gallons of brine into the Mahoning River.”
- This individual was charged (as the article points out) and is being prosecuted under state and federal charges for illegal dumping. This case has nothing to do with the proper use of Class II disposal wells, but all to do with illegal dumping, an action the industry does not condone.
- ODNR and Ohio EPA officials were on scene within three hours of receiving a tip of illegal dumping taking place. Due to their swift reaction they were able to gather photos of the event taking place, which ultimately helped the U.S. EPA and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) file charges against the individual which, according to DOJ, could result in three years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.
- For his actions, Mr. Lupo had all of his permits revoked and he is not allowed to operate in the state of Ohio. This prompt action should make our citizens feel safe that bad actors will be held accountable and allowed to operate in our state.
As you can see, this particular writer needed to do a bit more research about what is and is not reality in Ohio. The fact is, disposal operations in Ohio are tightly regulated and have an impressive record of safety. Let’s hope there’s a bit more research into the facts – and less emphasis on the hysteria – the next time Mother Jones reports on this subject.